"Writing hurts. It’s miserable. But then when it’s done, it can really be an accomplishment, if you actually allow something of yourself to transfer to the paper, I think it’s one of the most amazing things a person can do." — Shane Black, 2005
What I love about Shane Black is how unique his voice is. His writing style is a confluence of multiple genres (buddy, noir, detective) forming into something totally new. He doesn't care about stock conventions and always adds pathos, humor and ultraviolence to his films. With only a handful of produced screenplays written in a 30-year span, Black achieved something many writers dream of: He did it his way and never stopped writing, no matter how miserable it got.
With The Nice Guys ready to hit theaters on May 20, I wanted to talk about my two favorite Shane Black scripts: The 1987 action blockbuster Lethal Weapon and the 2005 cult classic Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. They are two of my favorite buddy films because they remained relatively untouched visions that stayed "Blackian" (smart, bloody, lots of dialogue, takes place during Christmas) from script to screen.
Lethal Weapon skyrocketed Black into fame, while Kiss Kiss Bang Bang represented his world-weary comeback that solidified his talent. I highly doubt that Black foresaw how influential they would be, and the freedom from expectations allowed him to do his best work. Black wasn’t afraid to evolve tropes and add wrinkles to pre-existing cinematic genres. No wonder writer Zak Penn (Behind Enemy Lines, Elektra) said Black is the "Elmore Leonard of action films."
Black revolutionized the buddy cop genre when he unleashed the instant classic Lethal Weapon. It wasn't the first buddy cop film, but the script was ahead of its time and director Richard Donner (Superman, The Goonies, Scrooged) was able to blend the action, humor and emotion perfectly. If you had to fit this film into a predetermined shape, it could never happen — because Lethal Weapon broke the mold.
In a great chat with the Hollywood Interview Black discussed his dive into screenwriting:
"I think why my initial scripts got me so many meetings is that nobody had taught me what you’re supposed to do when you write a screenplay. I just assumed there were no rules, and went ahead and did it. So the supposedly 'unique style' that I had wasn’t born out of any need to show off or be bratty, it was just me having fun."
The Shane Black Voice
Black's unique style was deeply influenced by other nonconventional scripts for movies like Marathon Man, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Alien and the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte classic 48 Hours. These films proved to be influential by creating relatable characters while still maintaining a level of grittiness and danger. A lot of of blood, sweat, and tears went into the making of these films, but they looked effortless and the dialogue rang true.
Drawing inspiration from Dirty Harry, the 1960s I Spy television show and 48 Hours (which helped start the buddy cop trend), he wrote a script that walked a tightrope of tough-guy dialogue and endearing characters. The main characters Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) are complete opposites who are teamed up together and initially find themselves at odds.
Murtaugh plays it by the book and is worried about making it safely to retirement, while Riggs is suicidal after the loss of his wife. Despite their differences, they built a great team and become family. Black’s script does an excellent job of creating a believable friendship that is surprisingly sensitive for an action film. I love this line of dialogue that proved to be truly “Blackian” and comedically modern:
Sergeant McCaskey (played by Jack Thibeau): You know, Roger, you are way behind the times. The guys of the '80s aren't tough. They are sensitive people. Show a little emotion to a woman and shit like that. I think I'm an '80s man...
One reason why Lethal Weapon resonated with audiences is because the script allowed the characters to become three-dimensional humans who were able to construct a believable bond. The action scenes furthered the Murtaugh/Riggs relationship organically, allowing for character building and real stakes to unfold.
Here is an example of the dialogue that furthers the characters relationship while still being punchy and working to advance the plot.
Roger Murtaugh: [Discussing a theory] That's pretty fucking thin.
Martin Riggs: That's very thin.
Roger Murtaugh: What the hell, thin's my middle name.
Martin Riggs: Your wife's cooking, I'm not surprised.
[Fires his gun several more times]
Roger Murtaugh: What? What?
Martin Riggs: Nothin'.
Roger Murtaugh: Remarks like that will not get you invited to Christmas dinner.
Martin Riggs: My luck's changing for the better every day.
The film is heavy on dialogue yet it never fails to show above telling. Take, for instance, the moment when Murtaugh finally realizes that Riggs is on the brink of suicide:
Gibson and Glover were perfect in the roles, partially because they were unselfish in their pursuit of breathing life into Black's dialogue. For instance, they weren’t afraid to call themselves old or show genuine hurt due to the loss of a spouse. They looked like real men (who could kill a lot of people) and who were fallible and troubled.
In an interview with Creative Screenwriting, Black shared his secret to creating great dialogue and characters:
"I think the key to dialogue is to love it first. I’ll be sitting in a restaurant and someone will say something and I’ll just go to that person, 'Say that again. What did you say? That is so cool.' You have to pay attention to people and the turns of phrase that make them distinct individuals. Little things, tics and conversational asides you notice in life. The biggest high for me is when I capture on film or paper a little conversational tic you wouldn’t normally think to put on film."
A Litany Of Imitators
The biggest danger with Black's writing was that it was so cool, indifferent and shockingly sensitive. Thus, in the late 1980s and early 1990s many studios attempted to recreate the magic by churning out buddy films that featured unnecessary violence, glossy recreations of Black's dialogue and oddball pairings.
Style and bizarre pairings became more important than actual substance, and aside from some gems, the buddy genre became awash with imitators. Black actually commented on the state of action cinema in 1991 with this quote from The Last Boy Scout:
This is the '90s. You can't just walk up and slap a guy, you have to say something cool first.
Basically, every type of duo was explored and characters found themselves teaming up with dogs (K-9, Turner & Hooch), the elderly (Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot), and even a gnome (A Gnome Named Gnorm).
There were some notable films that learned from Lethal Weapon and overcame what Roger Ebert called the “Wunza movie” (one’s a motormouth, one’s a quiet type). Bad Boys and Rush Hour are two examples of buddy cop films getting it right via likable actors, solid action and healthy doses of humor. These two films eschewed pathos for punchlines but proved that likable pairings can win the day. I love what Ebert had to say about Rush Hour:
“'Rush Hour' is lightweight and made out of familiar elements, but they're handled with humor and invention, and the Wunza formula can seem fresh if the characters are Botha couple of engaging performers."
By 2005, the buddy comedy genre had grown a bit stale and overcrowded. For every hit like Starsky & Hutch, Bad Boys 2 and The Rundown we got movies like Showtime, White Chicks, National Security, Cradle 2 the Grave, I Spy, The Man, Hollywood Homicide, Double Take, and All About the Benjamins. However, a little film called Kiss Kiss Bang Bang slipped through the cracks and managed to prove itself very influential, if not a blockbuster on the scale of Lethal Weapon.
A Film He Can Call His Own
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is one of my favorite films of the 2000s because it was the product of frustration, creativity and inspiration. Black was clearly frustrated with Hollywood and found a way to lampoon the filmmaking world while telling a story that was uniquely his own. Despite the 18-year gap between Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss, Black’s voice was still loud and clear. In a great interview with The A.V. Club, Black expressed his love for the film:
"I'm more proud of it than anything else I've done. It is effectively what I wanted. If this movie's bad, it's my fault. It's not somebody else who changed or censored or edited it. This is the stuff I wanted, and that's what's on the screen, and if you don't like it, it's my bad."
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang focuses on a petty thief moving to Hollywood and finding himself embroiled in something straight out of a pulp novel. What makes Kiss Kiss so brilliant is the interplay between Harry (Robert Downey Jr.) and put-upon private detective Perry (Val Kilmer). They are a true odd couple and prove to be worthy, though very different, successors of Riggs and Murtaugh.
They are teamed together against their will, form a bond through violence, and find themselves being electrocuted in terrible ways. Much like Gibson and Glover in Lethal Weapon, Downey and Kilmer embraced Black's dialogue and obviously enjoyed saying lines like “Go. Sleep badly. Any questions, hesitate to ask.”
Scott Tobias of the A.V. Club summed up the film perfectly when he wrote:
And so on. Watching Kiss Kiss Bang Bang prompts wishes that Hollywood still had screenwriters talented enough to use explosion-filled trash as a means for personal expression. More improbably, it also prompts nostalgia for the glory days of the buddy comedy, which can really zing when the right actors bounce the right dialogue off each other.
This clip proves how great it is when the right actors are able to bounce great dialogue off each other:
Perhaps Shane Black revolutionized the buddy comedy genre because he never intended to revolutionize anything. One reason Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Lethal Weapon are so enjoyable is because you can tell Black loved the words he was writing. The dialogue flows off the screen and the end product felt organic and cool. As different as they are, Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang are both original, fresh and alive.
The buddy comedy evolved with these movies because he put characters first and realized the buddy dynamic needs to work above all else. I hope Black never gets “too old for this shit”; and by the looks of The Nice Guys, he still has a lot of great dialogue and characters left in him.